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June 3, 2011 12:49 PM   Subscribe

“If you try to do what they do in West Virginia in the Berkshires, the Catskills or the Sierra Nevadas, or in Utah or Colorado, people would just put you in jail. Over the past 10 years, they’ve blown up and leveled an area of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia that is larger than the size of Delaware. They’ve blown up the 500 biggest mountains in West Virginia. They explode everyday 2,500 tons of dynamite, or ammonia nitrate explosives. It’s the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb once a week.” In the valleys of Appalachia, a battle is being fought over a mountain. It is a battle with severe consequences that affect every American, regardless of their social status, economic background or where they live. It is a battle that has taken many lives and continues to do so the longer it is waged. This is the story of The Last Mountain.
posted by tallthinone (49 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Capitalism at work, folks.
posted by Artw at 12:52 PM on June 3, 2011


Kennedy on the Colbert Report recently.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 12:52 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

-John Prine
posted by TedW at 12:54 PM on June 3, 2011 [11 favorites]


Meanwhile: Energy industry shapes lessons in public schools
In the mountains of southwestern Virginia, Gequetta Bright Laney taught public high school students this spring about a subject of keen interest to the region’s biggest employer: the economics of coal mining.

“Where there’s coal, there’s opportunity,” Bright Laney told her class at Coeburn High School in Wise County.

Her lessons, like others in dozens of public schools across the country, were approved and funded by the coal industry. Such efforts reflect a broader pattern of private-sector attempts to influence what gets taught in public schools.
posted by peeedro at 1:08 PM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's not about the decades between meltdowns. It's about the centuries of uninhabitability afterward.
posted by Trurl at 1:09 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


“Where there’s coal, there’s opportunity,” Bright Laney told her class at Coeburn High School in Wise County.

If you've ever been to West Virginia you know this isn't true.
posted by dortmunder at 1:11 PM on June 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, two really incredible musicians from the area, made a great album last year and donated all of their royalties to The Alliance for Appalachia, which fights mountaintop removal.
posted by jbickers at 1:15 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, no, this thread really must be about my views on nuclear energy because anyone who doesn't share them likes coal and mountain-top removal mining. /wait what?

Everything about how we extract and use energy should be up for reconsideration. Fracking for natural gas is polluting our groundwater. The Fukashima plant is still not fully under control and likely to cause more pollution.

I agree with Bobby Kennedy Jr., as quoted in the article:
“So we’re not advocating for getting rid of power. We’re advocating for getting the power in a responsible way, and something that doesn’t destroy the patrimony that we all grew up with, whether it’s clean air and clean water or these beautiful mountain ranges in Appalachia.”
Meanwhile, Massey Energy is rushing through a planned merger with a company called Alpha Natural Resources very likely in large part to avoid any legal liability for the Upper Branch explosions that killed 29 miners, which multiple independent investigators have determined occurred largely due to Massey's management's cost-cutting and negligent business practices.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:17 PM on June 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


So I've been looking at the area around Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia on Google Earth and I can't find the area that's been leveled that's reported "larger than Delaware". What I -do- see is a massive rectangular forest patch over that very area. It looks like an old satellite photo. Has Google been ordered to cover this up?

You can make out what seem to be coal mining operations along the southern border of this patch, but they're partially obscured.
posted by lemuring at 1:25 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you've ever been to West Virginia you know this isn't true.

Actually, I've spent a heck of a lot of time in West Virginia and just got back two days ago, and I can say confidently that West Virginia has come a very, very long way in the last thirty or forty years. Sure, it's still got a long way to go, but it is a far cry from where it was as recently as the 1970s or 80s, particularly in the Northern half of the state.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:27 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


To add to my comment, I can make out a number of coal mines within the rectangular patch, but I'm seeing nothing like a gigantic Delaware-sized blight upon the land.
posted by lemuring at 1:31 PM on June 3, 2011


> but I'm seeing nothing like a gigantic Delaware-sized blight upon the land.

Combined, not contiguous.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:33 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]



Actually, I've spent a heck of a lot of time in West Virginia and just got back two days ago, and I can say confidently that West Virginia has come a very, very long way in the last thirty or forty years. Sure, it's still got a long way to go, but it is a far cry from where it was as recently as the 1970s or 80s, particularly in the Northern half of the state.

I hope you're right. I spent the first twelve or so years of my life in Wheeling, and I have never had the desire to go back.
posted by dortmunder at 1:34 PM on June 3, 2011


And while I'm at it, let me add that any progress economically they may be making comes at a huge price. I used to fish in Dunkard Creek as a kid when we went to visit my grandmother. Now, there are no more fish thanks to fracking.
posted by dortmunder at 1:38 PM on June 3, 2011


Massey Energy is rushing through a planned merger with a company called Alpha Natural Resources very likely in large part to avoid any legal liability for the Upper Branch explosions that killed 29 miners...

At least that evil son-of-a-bitch Blankenship is out. Shame he left the industry under a golden parachute instead of a layer of pitch and feathers.
posted by Iridic at 1:40 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why be self-righteous? Once upon a time there was an industrial revolution and it sued steam and the steam was heated by coal. Then it was found that oil was more efficient than coal and so they began using coal too. Then there came nuclear energy and some accidents so people not sure about that source of energy. We drive cars. We fly planes. We heat homes. We power plants. Powering requires coal or oil or atoms...and so we mess up the land or buy from other places.

Now if we want to be nice and environmental, we can give up a lot of things we are used to. But we won't. So we will instead use those things we like and badmouth the damage done by in getting the energy for those things we want to keep.

Now we feel much better.

what's the price today for heating oil? a gallon of regular? Gosh. That's a lot.
posted by Postroad at 1:41 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


In 2009 I flew across the length of southern West Virginia and into Kentucky in a small plane at relatively low altitude. I'd heard of mountaintop removal mining, but the extent I witnessed was shocking: for a lot of my trip, it seemed as if almost every mountain had a flattened dirt top. The barren spots can be seen in this satellite map (you can zoom in and see more detail), though they looked more striking from my perspective.
posted by exogenous at 1:50 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Upper Branch explosions that killed 29 miners, which multiple independent investigators have determined occurred largely due to Massey's management's cost-cutting and negligent business practices.

Also due to the fact that it was an underground mine rather than an open pit (or mountaintop) mine.

I was at the site of a disaster in Nova Scotia (the Westray mine), where an explosion killed 26. I never went underground, but I did see the dent on a steel clad building, 30 or 40 metres up, where the portal doors had hit after they were shot out of the mine like a bullet. Stories I heard told of 8-inch diameter steel pipes that had been crushed and bent around beams, as if they were spaghetti. All this, in a modern North American mine.

Underground coal mining is one of the most dangerous professions there is. The danger can be mitiagted, but the working conditions are inherently very unsafe: an underground coal mine is an enclosed space with a naturally-replenishing supply of explosive gas and dust. Thousands die every year in Chinese underground mines; many died on a regular basis in North America until fairly recently.

The Westray disaster, like the recent one in West Virginia, was preventable; if the responsible people in the companies and in government had done their jobs and enforced the regulations, they wouldn't have happened. But the inherent danger is high and humans are short-sighted.

Be aware that if we stop mountaintop removal mining _and_ continue using coal at the rate we are now, then more miners will die.
posted by chebucto at 1:50 PM on June 3, 2011


You're right Horselover Phattie. I'm seeing more and more coal mines stretching into Kentucky. It looks pretty terrible actually... like the diseased skin of a horse.

One thanks Google for supporting clean energy and hopefully making the transition to a post-carbon age easier.
posted by lemuring at 1:52 PM on June 3, 2011


In 2009 I flew across the length of southern West Virginia and into Kentucky in a small plane at relatively low altitude. I'd heard of mountaintop removal mining, but the extent I witnessed was shocking: for a lot of my trip, it seemed as if almost every mountain had a flattened dirt top. The barren spots can be seen in this satellite map (you can zoom in and see more detail), though they looked more striking from my perspective.

I enjoy the irony that the biggest bare spot is right next to "Big Ugly Public Hunting Area."
posted by Mister Fabulous at 1:52 PM on June 3, 2011


Her lessons, like others in dozens of public schools across the country, were approved and funded by the coal industry. Such efforts reflect a broader pattern of private-sector attempts to influence what gets taught in public schools.

Still think privatizing public schools would be a good idea?
posted by Thorzdad at 1:53 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


But nuclear power is much worse, because a once in three decades meltdown affects people with money who matter, not just worthless inbred hillbillies (and anyone who breathes the coal-polluted air, but please to ignore that).

You're completely missing the point. Humanity needs to drastically reduce its energy consumption. A high-energy consuming society, in whatever form - fossil fuels or nuclear - is bad news for the planet.

Whether or not we can reduce our consumption is a different story.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:17 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's not about the decades between meltdowns. It's about the centuries of uninhabitability afterward.

By contrast, when we make Earth uninhabitable by overusing fossil fuels, it will recover pretty quickly once we're no longer in the picture. Clearly preferable to nuclear power.
posted by Behemoth at 2:19 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


West Virginia is my adopted second home state. It's the only place in the world where I own property, and one of the most stunningly, blissfully, verging on unbearably beautiful places in the world. It goes all silvery grey in the winter, up where my place is, sort of like the color heads elsewhere after the spectacle of autumn, and in the spring, there's this astonishing wave of green that comes roaring in over the folds and valleys of the mountains that just purifies the soul. I've got a rail line running almost through my front yard on Sideling Hill, and the river's just down below that, and the fact that I can go for a swim in the cool Potomac at five in the morning, when the clouds have all descended to the surface there, and hear the morning freights calling in the distance is probably why religion never sticks with me. It is, almost literally, all I need some days.

I'm lucky, though. I'm out in the Eastern Panhandle, a little satellite region that's not particularly rich in combustible resources, and so there's not a big risk that they'll come destroy my mountain. Down South, where my ex comes from, it's far different. If you've ever seen these ruinous sites in person, it's as staggeringly awful as the rest of the state is glorious. They come in, where the gentle rumpled mountains of the Appalachians stand watch over the valleys, and level it all down flat, into a grey plain as lifeless and dull as a copy of the New Jersey Turnpike, destroying whole ecosystems, rivers, and aquifers. It's worse than Chernobyl, to see up close. Chernobyl's green, and the animals have returned to rule.

The apologists say, with a certain buoyant pride, that West Virginia needs flat land here and there, for development. Me, well, I like to lie back on my hillside some nights, when there's no moon, and look up. The stars are so bright, and so clear there, and even airplanes are far, far above, caught between hubs. I can't help but think of how old that mountain is. 480 million years ago, when the Appalachians were rising up in the crash of tectonic plates building Pangea, my mountain was there. My mountain was part of the same chain of mountains as the Atlas mountains in Morocco, in the Ordovician period, when the only plants on land were tiny, non-vascular mosses and varieties of algae.

All that history, all the endless time, rolling by, just ending in flat, blasted tabletop nightmares because we just can't bring ourselves to use something other than a magical burning rock to run our modernity. We pat ourselves on the back for inventing electric cars, which run on coal. We replace coal-burning lightbulbs with new kinds of coal-burning lightbulbs. We talk about renewables, but don't do much. We run around like scared poultry over nuclear, statistics be damned, but we're more than happy to destroy 480 million year-old landscapes with highly evolved ecosystems rather than build closed-loop nuclear. The propaganda is always the same self-hating stuff, the same "humans can't be trusted with such power," and yet, a leveled mountain is leveled forever. Even Chernobyl will eventually be fully habitable again, but Kayford Mountain, to pick one out, is gone forever. No half life, no recovery, just gone.

One day, I'd love to look up the mountainside and see the gentle blades of a wind turbine there at the crest, catching the breeze over the ridge, but somewhere in between, I wish we'd really get the message, as a species that coal is best left where it is, replaced with something that's not freeing up sequestered carbon from hundreds of millions of years ago or destroying communities in accident after accident after accident. How many American communities have been wiped out by nuclear accidents so far?

I have to wonder how many of us actually bother to use the choice available to us in recent years, where we can opt to use the energy supplier of our choice for our home utilities. Do we put our money where our mouth is, paying much higher rates to get renewable energy there, or do we sigh and stick with what's wrong, because we think it's a drop in the bucket and money's just so tight these days, you know? I should be less cynical, but I do wonder.
posted by sonascope at 2:27 PM on June 3, 2011 [67 favorites]


A high-energy consuming society, in whatever form - fossil fuels or nuclear - is bad news for the planet.

Being a high-energy consuming society isn't inherently bad for the planet. It is only bad for the planet if the energy is derived from non-renewable sources extracted from the Earth.
posted by Justinian at 2:27 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I can always recognize a sonascope comment before the end of the first sentence. I refuse to believe that he writes those comments on the spur of the moment. I imagine he has a collection of perfectly formed essays prepared in advance, filed away by topic and posts them when opportunity arises.
posted by empath at 2:36 PM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Being a high-energy consuming society isn't inherently bad for the planet. It is only bad for the planet if the energy is derived from non-renewable sources extracted from the Earth.

I can think of other ways it's bad for the planet - or the biosphere, at any rate. A society with enormous energy resources can pretty much pave, till, dam, clearcut, and otherwise generally obliterate pretty much whatever it feels like obliterating.

Of course, a society with enormous energy resources is also the precondition for my livelihood and my ability to sit here commenting on MetaFilter...

All that aside, I think it's still an open question whether we can be an energy-rich civilization without consuming non-renewable resources.
posted by brennen at 2:56 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Previously and with high resolution pictures.
posted by adamvasco at 2:58 PM on June 3, 2011


It is, almost literally, all I need some days.

While I agree with sonascope and admire the graceful prose, what about the people who live there all the time? You can't eat scenery. WVA's brain drain is a problem for a state with an aging population and not many jobs for the young people who do stay. Selling bait to tourists and firewood to each other isn't much of a way to make a living. I don't know the answer, don't pretend to know, but I understand people who went down into the mines, because they didn't have many other choices.
The West Virginia glass industry should be revived, I think.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:25 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Robert Kennedy is lending his voice..."

Oh, crap.

(I kid, I kid...!)
posted by markkraft at 4:32 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is a bit like when you go to the supermarket and see a nice juicy steak wrapped in plastic. You just see the sanitized result, you don't see the meat packing plant, the slaughter house, the feed lot and the millions of acres of subsidized mono-culture corn used for feed. The huge environmental cost of your steak dinner is hidden politely away so that you can enjoy your dinner in peace. Well that mountain top coal mine or fracked natural gas field is exactly the same. It's just the price you pay for being able to cook that same steak in the comfort of your kitchen.

So we should stop fucking whining about evil corporations destroying the environment. They only do it because we (each and every one of us) create the market for the what they're selling. The second anyone suggests that maybe they should include the costs of the damage in the price of the product there's a chorus of outrage about killing the economy, jobs & Bambi with higher energy/food prices. So while it might make us feel better to rant at evil Massey Energy(granted probably a particularly good example of scumbags), in reality we are each personally responsible for the damage they do through our own choices and lifestyle.
posted by Long Way To Go at 4:39 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I read sonascope's wonderful comment in the voice of the Stage Manager in "Our Town".

Most everybody's asleep in Grover's Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins, down at the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable somebody's setting up late and talking. -- Yes, it's clearing up. There are the stars - doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven't settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk... or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain's so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest. Hm... Eleven o'clock in Grover's Corners. -- You get a good rest, too. Good night.
posted by orthogonality at 4:54 PM on June 3, 2011


Previously, Robert Kennedy Jr.
on MSNBC.
posted by humanfont at 5:00 PM on June 3, 2011


"what about the people who live there all the time?"

There are other ways to live and make a living without being dependent on commercial mining operations, especially ones whose MO is to get in, sell off the resource, and move on to the next site. I'm not saying it's easy, either (and I've been to WV).

This is similar to the Oil/Tar Sands here in Alberta: there is a desirable resource, which arguably belongs to the public/taxpayers in the jurisdiction where it's located. Government's strategy is to basically sell it off to the highest bidder, who will be allowed to essentially take the resource, "paying" for it with jobs that may or may not stay in the community long enough to provide any long-term benefit. Once the resource has been extracted, it's used to generate electricity (or provide chemical feedstock) in plants remote from the mining operations. Again, the communities, even the States where the mining occurs may not see benefits in terms of jobs, tax revenues or substantial development. That's Capitalism, folks.

My solution would be to nationalize the hell out of these operations and run them for the public benefit, but that's because I'm a goddamn Socialist. You will argue, "but we need to get that coal/oil/gas out of the ground NOW, because our shareholders see the profits slipping through their fingers. And what about the Chinese?" I will respectfully suggest that your shareholders are addicted to cheap energy and easy profits, and don't give a rat's ass about the future of our societies, or our children.

If you nationalized it, or at least got some reasonable (I know, define reasonable...) royalties out of the resource exploiting organizations, you could build infrastructure, attract jobs, create new industries, and otherwise set aside some money for the future. BUT, taxes are bad for business, right? And Massey Coal, like the Koch Brothers and Exxon, can't afford to put anything back into those communities, because they've got shareholders to support.

The difference in Alberta is that the government has set money aside (some $69 Billion, near as I can tell) from oil and gas royalties, although it's not clear for whose benefit. And we're not exactly socialists, either.
posted by sneebler at 5:33 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


They only do it because we (each and every one of us) create the market for the what they're selling. The second anyone suggests that maybe they should include the costs of the damage in the price of the product there's a chorus of outrage about killing the economy, jobs & Bambi with higher energy/food prices.

I pay higher prices for energy, foods and for goods for this exact reason. Can I start slamming the corporations now? Because a few good regulations could really make a difference and it is probably easier to pass these new laws than it would be to convince everyone to change their consumption patterns against the tide of market forces and advertising campaigns.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 6:16 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


But gosh. Aren't they just "making the rough places plain"???

If they could figure out how, they'd cube their grandmothers for $25 a gram.
posted by Twang at 7:26 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


what about the people who live there all the time? You can't eat scenery.

I think that's very true, and it's an issue that's at the heart of why West Virginia is at a crossroads. When I was at the end of my rope in the world of monotonous quasi-governmental corporate slavery back in 2004, my place in Morgan County suddenly came into focus for me as something other than just a rambling wreck in a far-too-wonderful setting. I'd cashed out of my 401k, had a reasonable lump of savings in the bank, and I worked out that I could move out there, set myself up with satellite internet, and live at about the same (admittedly modest) level as I did in Maryland for between $4800 and $6400 a year, especially if I did a little subsistence farming. Little bit of writing for hire, little bit of contracting, bit of clever ebaysmanship...I could do it.

I wrote something absolutely inexcusable for a television network that caters to telling lurid stories of women scorned primarily to non-scorned women with a prurient interest in watching lurid stories of women scorned (but generally avenged), which paid me a nice little chunk of change and gave me a bit of history I hope never to see on IMDB. Where my place is, there's a neat little slow-moving town about eighteen minutes away by reckless driving, called Great Cacapon, and there's the friendly and increasingly wealthy city of Berkeley Springs on the other side of the ridge, where I can get a cone at the Dairy Queen (an essential luxury for me). I'd done the math, worked out the details, and, in the end, I only chickened out because I got a pair of great jobs working as a freelance building contractor and because of a little nagging thought that, with the highest civilian security clearance available (a $30,000 value to employers), I could always whore myself in the realm of spooks.

Plus, I was feeling a bit blue that year, and it's not always best to be alone in the mountains when you're feeling blue.

Granted, I'm a person of privilege. I had a hard time thinking of myself as privileged, seeing as I'd never taken a week long vacation to a place with a beach, for instance, never owned a new car, and never felt sufficiently flush to pay for cable television, but I'm ahead of the game in terms of how many people downstate live. The family of my ex, to give an example, still largely lived in their rented (from the company store) housing in Slab Fork—grim little homes that were dirt cheap for retired miners, but appropriately squalid, too. One beloved uncle who spoke in a slurry brogue brought on by a half-amputation occasioned by chaw-induced cancer of the tongue, and who always smelled of wintergreen-flavored tobacco and whiskey, lived in a place where you had to jump across a huge hole in the floor to get from the living room to the kitchen, with a sixteen year-old grandson seemingly in the business of impregnating half the county and enough dogs to bring on an episode of Hoarders. They're good people down there, racist as mid-century Alabama cops and swimming in church, but it's a different world.

I have this sort of high-minded ideal that Stewart Brand could really be right about the sort of utopian reconnection of rural communities, where one can be both wonderfully away from the rest of the world and yet still tied in, and still vital as a producer in the overall community. There are little places throughout West Virginia where housing is cheap, whole towns are practically ready to be snapped up by young people with a world half in the digital cloud and and half in the DIY, down-and-dirty, rolled-up sleeves of it all. Take a town like Jane Lew and posit—could you move in to a place like that, get your wires all humming, work as a contractor, and end up as a collective, or a small-scale employer? We hear industry is dead in the US, and that we're a service economy now. Why do we need to live in absurdly expensive places to work at a computer, connected to the world of other computers?

I'm a foolish utopian at heart, still deliciously traumatized by my first delirious reading of Ecotopia so many years ago, and I'm well aware that my thinking veers more towards poetry than realism, but I think it's all a matter of will, and of the right people with the right personalities and the resource of charisma. There's the danger of mere gentrification of a state that truly lends itself to becoming a landing site for Lindal cedar homes packed with penny loafers and new agey retirees (one descended within visual range of my place, even), and that's an industry, but one that's ultimately unsustainable, IMHO. I'm fascinated by John Fetterman, though, and wonder why there couldn't be a legion of energized makers sweeping out and changing the face of the state without driving people out. West Virginia is a Schrödinger state, in a way, a place where things can either get very much better or very much worse with just a touch to tip it.

Back in the glory days, or at least in my father's latter glory days, when our family microfilm business was going absolute gangbusters, with on-site operators scattered across the country, my dad bought the run-down place that is now my run-down place, largely because it has a sort of ramshackle ad hoc splendor that recalled his youth in rural Georgia. It was his refuge, in the same way that it's now mine, but rather than blowing in and out like the usual part-timer, he stopped everywhere along the way, shaking hands and making friends in that aww-shucks way that he'd turn up his accent just a notch to achieve nearly instant simpatico. He knew everyone by name, and kept a suit in the cabinet in the place so he could go to services at the Methodist Episcopal Church a mile down the road, and in time, he started to hire the locals, loading Bell & Howell planetary film cameras into his beat-up gold F150 along with stacks of raw documents.

The Eastern Panhandle is one of the more upmarket parts of the state, but where our place stands, it's still a little ragged, especially for the people who aren't working for CSX, and before long, there were a dozen local subcontractors set up there, with garages and parlors set up for microfilm production by people being paid exactly what he paid his workers back in Maryland, and as usual, my father combined work and pleasure, heading up to spend a weekend watching the trains from the sagging porch of the place (a porch that collapsed in 2005, alas, because of my much-lesser resources), and returning with boxes of unprocessed 16mm film and completed documents.

Slouching on the bench seat of the truck one night, as we were bumping along the railroad access road to head into town, he caught a familiar fluorescent glow in the window of one of the houses there and pulled in at the pale green farmhouse where an elderly and almost imcomprehensibly colorful local character, "Yock," lived with his adult daughter and her husband.

"What are y'all doing runnin' that camera at this hour?" he asked, standing on the porch and talking to the woman, who'd stepped up from the camera.

"I was just feelin' restless, Mister Cleve," she said. "and besides, I got the numbers from Vicki with the last batch we did and I'm just about to whoop her crew."

There was a gleam in her eye, a little competitive streak that gave her a lot of pride in beating the city kids at their own game.

"Just so you write down all your hours, hon. You work an hour, you get paid an hour."

"Don't you worry about me, Mister Cleve. I'm kickin' their butts with talent!"

I stood in the background on the porch, a spectral figure composed entirely of eighties fashion atrocities, with a mullet as tall and effete as Nouvelle cuisine and, for some insane reason, white seersucker pants with twenty-one pockets arranged randomly around their puckered surface and espadrilles with lime green paint squiggles. I didn't get it, the relationships my dad forged out there, and wrinkled my nose at the strata of menthol smoke drifting into the yellow wash of the bug lamp on the porch. It's just so easy to look down, being from elsewhere, and miss out on the real nature of people everywhere.

If we leave coal behind, and let the richness of West Virginia run rampant, we don't have to accept the demise of a whole industry of hard-working folks as the price of a new world—we have to be smart, and we have to be evangelists for what there is for everyone in a different kind of economy. West Virginia can go far on eco-tourism, seeing as it's drowning in ecology most city kids can't begin to imagine, but there's gotta be cottage industry, too, people making things and doing things and conceiving the next generation of the next big thing. We're increasingly past place as a limiting factor in our lives, and so there's less reason why you can't be alive and human and interconnected in a place near Slab Fork, Beckley, or Romney.

Of course, I'm a utopian, and I'm always flummoxed by how stuck we get. I get mountains of emails from the mountaintop removal protestors, and I'm a little troubled by how adversarial it is sometimes, and how demeaning. There are a lot of Massey employees who will defend Massey, even when the big company is wrecking their home towns, but smug dismissiveness isn't how you counter that. That's a way to get people to dig in, and remind them that you're an outsider, someone to view through slightly narrowed eyes. Guns blazing an environmental message, underpinned with a sort of vague offering of "what about eco-tourism?" doesn't cut it. Sometimes, you have to keep a suit in a cabinet, so you can step into the sanctuary of a tiny church in a town that's almost too small to call a town, and you have to come in with an open heart and something to offer in exchange for changing a way of living that's stood for hundreds of years.

I don't have it, alas, and I'm a lousy businessman, to top it all off. I look the part these days, but deep down, I'm still too much that weedy, doughy kid on the porch in his magenta muscle shirt covered with randomly placed grommets, albeit with a college degree in poetry and apiary science, and I don't have what my dad had. His experiment didn't last either, though it wasn't down to the failure of the locals, who produced our company's best work right until the time that my dad had to tell them, with watery, sad eyes, that the business wasn't doing so well, and that he'd bring them work again as soon as he could, just as soon as things turned around.

It's all gone now—the business, the old truck loaded with DOJ paperwork and a camera, and my dad. The suit's still hanging there in the cabinet, with the program from Yock's funeral in the breast pocket. I got a wild hair, some months back, stripped off my overalls and shirt, and tried it on.

"Jesus, Dad," I said to no one in the room, utterly failing to button the slacks, even as I showed a good five inches of sock down below the trouser cuffs, and the jacket was more a sort of routine by a prop comic than a respectable garment. Too bad, too, as it was Brooks Brothers, and had a nice line. "I can't believe my father was some kind of midget!"

I get that I'm a starry-eyed utopian, and I defend my right to be that guy, but I also think that we can do better. We can't feed people on scenery, or even on that feeling that comes when you're lying on your back in the cool, damp grass on an old, old mountain that's nowhere in particular, when you let the city drain from your bloodstream until it's just you and the mountain and the stars, paced by a heartbeat that's swiftly slowing until you can make out the rotation of the Earth by watching the stars in the jagged fringe of the treeline. We can't sustain communities on the way it dawns on you, watching the sky, that you're watching a map of different histories, seeing stars from a million years ago and from a few years ago, all at once, and what that means for us, in that discontinuity between the mass of the world and the infinitesimal spark of consciousness that's watching it right then and right there with a back pressed into a bed of grass that's whirling past the sky at six hundred miles an hour.

We can't make the world any less complex, knowing what comes when we forget the monkey mind that keeps us swinging from distraction to distraction in the jungle gyms of the living city, but if there's anything at all of value in that, in that rare and most perfectly distilled sensation of being separated from our constructions, it's that we have to try. There will always be big, wonderful, amazing cities, and there will always be electric light, chasing away the dark, whether it's fueled by burning black rocks or majestic turbines high overhead or the wondrous exchange of neutrons splitting nuclei or electrons boiling out of solar storage batteries, but these impossible mountains, scar tissue from continental collisions of a whole other planet, can only go away, either with the sad glory of erosion on geological timeframes or in the explosive deconstruction of post-human and post-humane industry.

On the hillsides, the best times come when there's the world, all around me, and our world. The trains cry out at the bend in the road at Yock's house, about a mile out from me, and it echoes with the kind of sweet, mournful sincerity of bagpipes played at dusk in some distant place. I hear the sound coming, and the gentle appearance of the little squeals and thunks of approaching wheels, and then the train comes. You can feel it in your chest, the low grunt of the engine and the subsonic thunder of the heavy cars rumbling by, and it all comes together.

We are amazing. In a blink of an eye, in the history of this planet, we have risen up from the aird plains and the lush jungles, built whole languages to describe the awe of being alive, challenged the cruelty and paucity of what we're given, and built our own impossible mountains, scattering our eyes, ears, and voices into the universe as a plaintive message to anyone who might be out there, watching their own dark skies on a night a million years from now, when the flickering light of our sun reaches their own mountainsides.

We are here, reaching out, building up, getting smarter.

How do we meet this challenge? Can we beat the machines of industry that we've built, now that they're big enough that it seems almost impossible to step in front of them and raise a hand to stop them in their tracks? Can we do it without condescension or whole cloth gentrification? Is the world of the electronic cottage verging on emergence, now that the rails are laid, the sky's seeded with satellites, and the software's written?

I can't solve these problems, but I'm here to tell you we fucking well should.
posted by sonascope at 7:35 PM on June 3, 2011 [18 favorites]


At Virginia Tech's recent Engineering graduation, one of the Mining and Minerals Engineering grads had a slogan on her mortarboard: "Coal keeps the lights on." I'm considering printing light-switch covers with that slogan and pictures of the destruction you can see driving up I-77/I-81 on the way to Blacksburg. I'm not known for being ridiculously "green", but to drive up through Fancy Gap and into that scene makes me want to cry.
posted by phrits at 7:35 PM on June 3, 2011


Mountains are being obliterated everywhere (even in California). Slover Mountain was once the dominating feature of the San Bernardino Valley, is nary a bump now and not a single soul has been charged with a crime.
posted by buggzzee23 at 8:28 PM on June 3, 2011


I remember RFJ Jr on the daily show a couple of years ago spouting anti-vax nonsense, so I'm not exactly going to take him seriously. Also, the Kennedy's held up a wind-farm project for years because they thought it would ruin their view. Bleh.
Powering requires coal or oil or atoms...and so we mess up the land or buy from other places.
NO offense, but that's bullshit. Everyone repeats it, but in reality solar and wind cost about the same as nuclear power, or less. It's true that power is intermittent, you don't get solar energy at night, for example. But We could replace a LOT of our fossil fuel use with solar and wind without a change in lifestyle. You could replace even more with minor changes, like having electricity be more expensive at night, for example.

Hardly anyone ever backs up their 'nuclear is more practical then solar' nonsense with any hard data (One person did try in another thread, but he didn't understand the difference between energy and power, so the math didn't make much sense)

Google isn't investing hundreds of millions in wind solar because it's not cost effective.
posted by delmoi at 8:36 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not only is it bs, but Amory Lovins was arguing 25 years ago that if you put your money into insulation and weatherstripping instead of (nuclear) power plants, you can not only SAVE the cost of the plant by increasing efficiency, but build a whole bunch of jobs into the efficiency industries. I admit that his calculations might have been optimistic, but it's worth a try.

Take what they're doing in Germany, for example.

The North American energy industry has succeeded in convincing people that the only way to go is MORE. More coal, more electricity and more energy use. It's part of the general theme in Capitalism that "if you're not growing at X% per year, you're FALLING BEHIND!". Which, if you think about it, is kind of nutty: Earth's resources are limited, space is limited, renewable resources are limited blah blah Club of Rome blah. But never mind that! We'll build a whole system predicated on the idea of eternal growth anyway, and when Earth gets too small, why, we'll set out for SPACE! How's that working out for you? Meanwhile, resource limits just become another excuse for various kinds of corporate crime, and we're actually going BACK IN TIME to a Feudal economy where the corporate barons take whatever they want, and all the noblemen journalists stand around and watch because it's not THEIR children suffering from poverty and industrial waste exposure. (Sorry, I'm feeling hyperbolic and I can't find my box of periods)
posted by sneebler at 9:15 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Doesn't it take energy to build all those energy efficient products and drive all those installers around in their trucks and run their compressors?
posted by humanfont at 9:36 PM on June 3, 2011


Doesn't it take energy to build all those energy efficient products and drive all those installers around in their trucks and run their compressors?
Jesus. Are even aware of the concept of mathematics? Of the concept of scale? Often in these discussions people seem to only operate with two different numbers: "More" or "none", energy use or non-energy use. Yes it "takes energy" to install insulation and energy efficient stuff, the question is whether it takes more energy then the insulation saves over time.

There's also the whole issue of ignoring energy use in everything else. People drive around all the time. But somehow we should be extra careful about driving around to actually improve efficiency. Same thing with arguing that the manufacturing of solar panels is bad because it takes energy, despite the fact that the manufacture of everything else also takes energy
posted by delmoi at 9:54 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: Are even aware of the concept of mathematics?
posted by Horselover Phattie at 9:59 PM on June 3, 2011


This week (June 4 - 10, 2011) kicks off the March to Save Blair Mountain. If you think mountaintop removal is an abomination, then grab your walking boots and come to Marmot West Virginia! The 50-mile march runs June 6-10, with a day of action June 10th at historic Blair Mountain.
posted by warreng at 11:56 AM on June 4, 2011


Correction: the day of action is june 11th -- more info at Appalachia Rising.
posted by warreng at 11:59 AM on June 4, 2011


Oh my gosh. I had a great reply all typed up and my power blipped. Ahhhhh.

I just wanted to share for a minute about WV. Someone upthread mentioned Big Ugly. I used to work there. I ran the recreation aspect of a summer youth program, out of a shutdown school. Interestingly, it had been the only such school in the county; that is to say it actually had a playing field. Down in that general area, you're lucky to get 200 yards without mountains or streams. Now, the only school in that county (Lincoln) with a field is the High School.

But the history of WV has always been one of exploitation and extraction. In the beginning there was salt. Salt played an interestingly important role in both the Revolutionary and Civil War, however in the Civil it was the key element ripping the state in half. After salt it was timber---ending with the start of the industrial revolution, all but about 50 acres of the entire state were clearcut. That's right---save for the "Virgin" stands, there is no old-growth left in the entire state, save for a tree here and there. After timber it was coal (still is, clearly.) At the non profit where I cut my teeth on social work, during peak coal 7 miles of road had 49 active companies, each with independent mines. Miner memorials and disaster parks dot the landscape, and those aren't even the coal fields. Between Salt and Coal there was sand---that's actually how my great grandparents made their (now gone) fortune. Silicate sand proliferates in these mountains, and we needed lots and lots of glass. That's why WV was, at one point, the most well known glass producer in the WORLD. There are still active decorative glass factories today---although their numbers are much fewer. After coal we went to Chemicals. The "Chemical Corridor" between Charleston and Huntington is the densest grouping of high-output chemical production in the Western Hemisphere. It's a huge issue of concern for National Security---one well placed U-Haul would poison the eastern seaboard. Now we've got the Marcellus Shale---and HORRAY we have 0 state regulations on it. The Shale interest groups managed to stall the entire last session to prevent any new restrictions, so now there are none. There are literally hundreds of out-of-state companies swooping in and digging wells. Morgantown, probably the most progressive city in the state, just approved 2 DEEP ones within 1 mile of their drinking water plant/reservoir. People with brains are not happy.

Anyway--Coal:

Bituminous, or sulpherous coal was nearer to the surface and easier to extract, and thanks to a little bastard called the "Tax Limitation Amendment of 1932", coal companies didn't have to pay extraction or business taxes on land that was green on top---so they'd lease the undermined soil to farmers, or plant their company towns on it, and pay residential or farm taxes. This was the "Statehouse Democrats" (now Republican) parties way of getting a piece of New Deal dollars----prior there was little influx because there was no state buy-in---which is to say that the Depression really didn't affect the state toooo badly, but someone finally realized there was serious money to be made. Now when you visit our State Forests and Parks, you'll see the fruits of CCC (and the other) work groups. Unfortunately, their work was poorly catalogued and much of it has been lost to the woods, however WVU and Marshall Universities continue to belch out History Graduate Students (cough, cough, *looks around*) who find interest in such things, and so progress is being made.

Some folks don't know it, but WV actually has an exemption from the Clean Air Act. There's a reason for that. There's also a reason that we're the oldest aggregate state, the most disabled aggregate state, the most obese aggregate state, and with (in cities and between Charleston and Huntington) we have some of the worst air quality in the nation. Most people don't know, but the most acid rain to ever fall in the US fell in Beckley, WV. I can't find my source right now, but it was so acidic that it caused chemical burns.

So why, then, does it persist? Lots of reasons. We actually don't have hard numbers, but all research indicates that a greater percentage of land in WV is owned by people who DO NOT have permanent residence here than by people who DO. We've also got folks like the late Byrd (search my rant on that old bird, I was not a fan) who did EPIC work "for" the people in persisting the status quo. Other reasons, coal pays well. Every year, coal plants produce more coal with less labor. For 60 years, the UMWA had a WRITTEN POLICY to strike when wages went UP. I'm a fan of coal miners, but I can't help but wonder what people think. It persists because Jobs mean Elections, and because in general, the younger and better educated population LEAVES. We're one of the few states where the number of children in public school actually decreases every year. (Of course, the largest "District" is homeschoolers...in a state with 0 requirements for matriculation of homeschoolers, and where we allow people who did not graduate or get a GED to homeschool their children through the 12th grade.) I could go on.

I worked with a family for a while where the husband had a 3 hour shaft ride on BOTH ENDS of an 8 hour shift. Can you imagine riding 3 hours into the earth?

Mountain Top removal isn't new, but it's work on such a grand scale that the actual environmental aspects cannot possibly be known. Near Montgomery WV, we had the largest Mountain Top project in the entire country. After the land was packed, faults appeared over 150 feet deep, and wide enough to swallow pickup trucks. Entire streams disappeared. While I was working in WV, an entire town was swallowed up by a failed sludge retention lake, and the company wound up paying nothing because the state accepted their engineers words that it was "An Act of God".

The Land Reclamation Act says you have to return stripped land to the appearance it had before it was stripped. Except that on an "active" site, you don't have to. "Active" is X man hours of labor per year. There are dozens of places I could drive you where old, barely working equipment is left and men spend a few weekends a year pushing around dirt to keep an "Active" site so it doesn't have to be reclaimed. (The other hugely popular use for stripped land is the building of Wal-Marts, but I won't go there today.) At that non-profit I mentioned before, they've had 5 floods caused by tightly packed ground on top of the mountain not absorbing rain, and no proper drainage system causing rolling waves of mud to cascade down the hill. In every case, the company is only required to retain their own engineers and geologists, who promptly claim that it was none of their doing.

Anyway---I'm rambling, but we're fighting a losing battle. One of the things Obama did when he was very first elected was to force the approval of some surface mining operations the DEP had been declining for some time---some that even Bush II hadn't approved. I'm not sure what the motivation was there, but it stunned a LOT of us.

To give an idea of the scope of some of these operations, the normal dump-trucks have individual tires that stand 15 feet tall. Drag lines and scoops have mainlines directly to power plants.

Why? Why do (mostly out of state companies) do this to WV? Because they can.
posted by TomMelee at 8:47 AM on June 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Other exciting benefits of mining in the long run:
*Literally almost everything is undermined. Mine subsidence insurance is recommended in almost all new homes. A new school near me will require an estimated 1M cubic yards of concrete to fill the hole beneath it. An addition to a school near it recently required 150,000. A new shopping center recently went in, with a Dicks and a Target and other fun stores, and so far Dick's has sunk almost 6 inches.

*Underground fires. Coal doesn't need an external oxygen source, it will burn autonomously. It's not uncommon for mines to have caught fire and been capped, some are opened to explore every year and most are chugging along just fine. Sometimes one will burn close enough to the surface to start a wild fire.
posted by TomMelee at 8:51 AM on June 5, 2011


Postroad: "Now if we want to be nice and environmental, we can give up a lot of things we are used to. But we won't."

Yes, we will. After a long downward slide in which the Earth's ecosystem will be further damaged. An asymptotically diminishing number of people will remain in denial about this until the monetary expense of extracting fossil* fuel converges with the declining worldwide economy (which is fully dependent on high energy) and mining/drilling cannot continue.

It's not the specific source of energy that's germane. The ecosystem, communities, and individuals pay dearly for exploiting ANY source of the concentrated energy we've become accustomed to.

This isn't about being "nice and environmental". It's about facing facts. The faster you go, the further down the road you must look to avoid an accident whose severity is also a function of your speed. The energy resources we've tapped on a grand scale over the past century demand more responsible stewardship, and failing that, terrible consequences are coming.

Right now, we're content to cluck sadly to ourselves what a shame it is what's happening in mountaintop removal country, nuclear accident country, fracking country. And secretly think, thank god it's them instead of me. We better give up that isolationist fantasy and mobilize now, in a big way, to ratchet way down global energy consumption and deliberately shrink the economy. Yes that will put people out of work, yes it will cause a lot of suffering. But unemployment and suffering are coming anyway.

Those who are old enough need to remember the 1970s, when the beginnings of real change gained some momentum before they were shut down by another boom. What suckers we were. Is it all going to happen again when some new pocket of limited resources is discovered? And will we, again, stand spineless and helpless before the marketing propaganda and the inaction of our peers?

* including uranium
posted by maniabug at 10:50 AM on June 6, 2011


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